December 9, 2019

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Province appoints prosecutor to deal exclusively with Liquor Mart bandits

With the holiday shopping season fast approaching, questions remain as to how quickly announced security measures will be installed at all government liquor stores in Winnipeg — and what steps might be taken in the interim to protect employees and customers.

Dozens of Liquor Mart employees jammed the visitors' gallery at the Manitoba legislature Thursday as Opposition MLAs peppered the government with questions on what it was prepared to do to address the rising tide of liquor thefts and robberies in Winnipeg.

They left with few answers — and their union president said they felt insulted at a remark by Justice Minister Cliff Cullen, who dismissed demands the government host a summit on the retail theft problem as a get together "with coffee and donuts."

"To dismiss it as sitting around the table and having coffee and donuts — all I can say is, shame on them," said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union.

The MGEU, opposition parties, as well as business and retail lobby groups have called for a formal summit to tackle the problem, but the Pallister government has resisted the idea.

"I know that we are not going to be able to solve this problem until we have everyone at the table at the same time," Gawronsky said.

Provincial Justice Minister Cliff Cullen (right) and Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton (left) announced the formalization of Operation Safe Streets which is a collaboration between law enforcement partners, in consultation with Manitoba Liquor Lotteries and other retailers to address an alarming increase in retail thefts.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Provincial Justice Minister Cliff Cullen (right) and Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton (left) announced the formalization of Operation Safe Streets which is a collaboration between law enforcement partners, in consultation with Manitoba Liquor Lotteries and other retailers to address an alarming increase in retail thefts.

Earlier in the day, she met with Premier Brian Pallister to discuss Liquor Mart security and other issues. She said she came away thinking the premier "seemed positive" about the idea of a summit, but after watching question period, she was not so sure.

Cullen and Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton called a news conference Thursday morning to assure Manitobans the government was taking action.

Manitoba Government and General Employees Union president Michelle Gawronsky.

TREVOR HAGAN/ WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Manitoba Government and General Employees Union president Michelle Gawronsky.

Cullen announced the creation of a formal process, called Operations Safe Streets, to deal with liquor store thefts and retail thefts in general. But he released few details, except to say it involved representatives from his department, various police forces and Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Corp.

He noted a Crown attorney in Winnipeg had been assigned exclusively to prosecuting those charged with Liquor Mart crimes.

MLL has begun to install a new security system at Liquor Marts across Winnipeg, a measure already in the works but announced ahead of time in the wake last week's violent armed robbery at its Tyndall Market store.

Guards will scan customers' photo ID before allowing them in locked stores.

Wharton couldn't say Thursday when all government liquor stores would be outfitted with security measures, although he assured reporters it was "being fast tracked."

He said a request for proposals for the job of installing the controlled entrances is "moving quickly."

The new controlled entrance at the Tyndall Market Liquor Mart.

SUPPLIED PHOTO

The new controlled entrance at the Tyndall Market Liquor Mart.

Neither the government nor MLL would comment on how much the new security measures would cost to install and operate. A spokeswoman for the Crown corporation said such information could come as early as Friday.

Wharton couldn't say Thursday whether customer information obtained in the new ID scanning process would be stored or how it may be used going forward. He said the security process continues to evolve.

"Again, this is a new initiative," he told reporters.

The Opposition New Democrats suggested in the legislature the government pay for Winnipeg police officers to be present at all stores as a stop-gap measure until the security measures are installed.

"Until the government does make it clear when they are going to put security measures in place for the protection of all Liquor Mart employees, or for the general public, I think that some of these other avenues have to be explored," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

NDP leader, Wab Kinew.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

NDP leader, Wab Kinew.

Cullen said the government didn't want to publicize what tactics it may use to curb thefts.

"We clearly don't want to talk about operations and safety around the liquor stores in public," he said. "These guys (members of Operations Safe Streets) are professionals. They will have the discussion. They will make recommendations about where we go from here in the short term."

Gawronsky, who was to meet with cabinet ministers and Opposition MLAs later in the day, said the MGEU is frustrated Liquor Mart workers are largely being left out of the process.

She said she had not heard of Operations Safe Streets until it was unveiled Thursday.

Gawronsky said she told the premier it's time for government to take the lead and invest in a comprehensive strategy to deal with the theft problem and protect workers.

"If we need to put some money into this to provide that protection, it's time to do so."

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said he didn't understand the government's unwillingness to host a broad community gathering to work out solutions.

"If what the government was doing was working, you wouldn't have the chambers of commerce and the Retail Council (of Canada) asking for a summit," he said after question period.

In the legislature, Lamont accused the government of having a "crime reaction plan" as opposed to a crime prevention plan.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature Reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Read full biography

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Updated on Thursday, November 28, 2019 at 12:11 PM CST: Adds related stories

6:57 PM: Adds related items box

7:03 PM: Adds video

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